The Russian soul. The phrase serves as shorthand for Russia’s national character, after the manner of American innocence, French arrogance, Italian dolce far niente, and what used to be the English stiff upper lip. Russians are reputed to feel more than the rest of us do, think deep thoughts about eternal but elusive truths, engage in fevered dispute about the meaning of it all, weep unabashedly and laugh balefully over the sorrowful and preposterous human lot, and drink themselves into sodden paralysis. They suffer demonstratively. They have good reason to. Russian politics have been and continue to be an abomination, and for millions of Russians daily life is an all but intolerable grind. The people’s habit of replacing one tyrannical overlord with another is regrettable, to say the least. Russian souls have long been forged, when they have not been consumed, in the fires of an earthly hell.
Yet, as Dante knew when he plunged Satan and other traitors into the frozen depths of the Inferno, hell at its worst can be extremely cold. And Siberia has become a byword for such icy torment. It is the native vale of soul-making, to borrow a phrase from an English Romantic poet. As one denizen of the Arctic region Kolyma put it, “Here we have twelve months of winter. / The rest summer.” This everlasting winter has come to be associated with the slave labor camps of Stalin’s heyday, but already under the czars Siberian imprisonment followed by exile or military service was the standard punishment for political defiance as well as more conventional criminality. As one learns from Daniel Beer’s study The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars (2016), more than a million malefactors were consigned to Asian Russia, the vast expanse east of the Ural Mountains, between 1801 and 1917. Liberals, utopian socialists of various denominations, and Polish patriots trying to free their homeland from imperial oppression were all heavily represented among the banished outlaws.